District officials in Kalimpong have responded to complaints made by forest villagers in connection with notices served to them, allegedly questioning their rights on the land where they have been living. Officials said that the villagers had submitted their documents, staking their claims to plots of land in 2011, as there was a certain deadline for the submission of the same.

According to district officials, the process is ongoing and the recent notices received by the forest dwellers were merely an “opportunity of being heard,” which notified them that there are certain “shortcomings” in their claims. “As per the Forest Rights Act, the villagers had submitted their claims in 2011. Thereafter, going by the procedure, the documents were subject to scrutiny, and after processing them, the documents did not fulfill certain criteria.

They ought to be informed so that they can file a plea for further analysis and reviews of their claims if they are dissatisfied with the decision. So this is only an opportunity of them being heard. Some documents are wanted as of now, which are subject to scrutiny again, so there is nothing to worry about,” a district official said today.

It may be mentioned here that the Kalimpong Subdivisional Officer had recently handed down notices to at least 200 families living in forest areas, quashing their claims that they were forest dwellers. The move drew sharp criticism from forest rights activists, while Darjeeling MP Raju Bista termed it an illegal notification.

The notice said that the claimant’s individual and community claims to being forest dwellers were rejected by the District and Sub-divisional Committee under section 13(1)/(2) of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2007 “since you do not have documentary proof to prove that: i) You belong to Scheduled Tribe community ii) You are dependent on forest land iii) In case of other traditional forest dwellers, You have been a forest resident before 13.12.2005 for 3-generations (75 years).”

According to Kalimpong District Magistrate R Vimala, the claims made by the forest villagers before the Forest Rights Committee are reviewed by the latter, which are then sent to the sub-divisional committee. “Thereafter, those claims that are proper are submitted to the District Level Committee (DLC), while whichever is not recommended by the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) are returned to the concerned individuals for correction. Thus, they are informed that their claims are not being recommended to the DLC.

As such, they are given the opportunity of approaching the DLC or SDLC if they have been aggrieved. This has been done several times. Whenever people are not submitting their claims correctly, they have been given the opportunity to submit them again. It is not an outright rejection of their claims. Those have just not been approved as of yet,” Ms Vimala said today. Means to hold us back: Activist.

However, forest rights activists maintained that the claims are only a means of holding them back. General Secretary of the Himalayan Forest Villagers Organisation (HFVO), Lila Kumar Gurung, said, “We had been submitting the claim forms since 2008, then we had to submit it again in 2011. We have done this several times. They are only holding us back with such claim forms. We want our villages to be converted into revenue villages.

How come forest villages in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts were converted into revenue villages immediately after the Centre’s order of 2013, while Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts continue to keep fighting for the same till date? Granted that some 20 to 30 claims failed to fulfil certain criteria, but how can there be a mass rejection for as many as 200 families?”

According to Mr Gurung, a minimal of 24 villages, which lie between Sevoke and Rangpo, will be affected by the Sevoke-Rangpo rail project, for which the government has been trying to acquire land. While unconfirmed sources claimed that officials had started taking back the individual notices that the administration had recently issued, officials did not confirm the same.

Bista seeks probe On the other hand, MP, Mr Bista, said that had he not spoken on the issue, the state government would have “conveniently denied” the forest dwellers their rights, “and then may be later evacuate them by saying they are not forest dwellers.”

“Investigations should be commenced against those in the administration who conspired to disenfranchise and marginalise our people, and after I started to speak against it, are now forcing the people to hand over these illegal orders,” he said.